Taiwan Fears Isolation If Undersea Cables to Main Island Cut
2:00 JST, March 9, 2023
MATSU ISLANDS, Taiwan – In early February, the two undersea internet cables linking Taiwan’s main island with the Matsu islands it effectively controls were severed within less than a week. Chinese vessels are thought to have cut the cables, which has caused significant inconvenience for Matsu islands residents and fueled concerns that the main island could face a similar situation in the event of a contingency.
“We couldn’t get any information from outside the islands,” said a 33-year-old man who operates a small hotel offering budget accomodations on Nangan, one of the 36 small Matsu islands. “We really became a remote, isolated island.”
The man became anxious when he was unable to access social media after the cables were cut. Even now, sending data by smartphone is still patchy, and wired internet connections remain unusable.
Two cables connected the islands, which at their closest point are about 10 kilometers off the coast of China’s Fujian Province, with Taiwan’s main island. However, the first cable was severed on Feb. 2, and the other was cut on Feb. 8, which interrupted phone and internet connections with the outside world for the islands’ about 14,000 residents. They were unable to reserve plane tickets or do online banking, and shopping and other activities became much more complicated.
A telecommunications provider immediately launched a microwave system from the main island that has enabled some lines of communication to resume. However, priority is given to usage by hospitals, government entities and other essential bodies. Repairing the cables is scheduled to start on April 20.
Based on shipping records from around the times the cables were cut, Taiwan authorities believe that a Chinese fishing vessel and freighter were involved in the incidents. Some members of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party have suggested these acts of damaging the cables constitute “gray zone” tactics that could not be deemed to reach the threshold of an armed attack.
According to Taiwan authorities, cables linking Taiwan’s main island with the Matsu islands, the Quemoy islands, the Penghu islands and other islands — and also linking those islands with each other — have been damaged 30 times through human activity since 2020. Given that there reportedly are between 100 and 200 cases of damage to such cables around the world each year, the cables linking Taiwan are being affected with disproportionate frequency.
Twenty-one of the 30 incidents in which cables were severed were caused by fishing boats or sand dredgers. Chinese fishing boats and dredgers have previously caused problems by forcibly operating in waters near the islands.
Taiwan’s military has forces stationed on the Matsu islands, which were shelled by China in the 1950s. Several drones thought to be from China buzzed the islands last summer.
Preparing for an emergency underway
The severing of the cables has underscored to the administration of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen the importance of maintaining and securing communication lines. Taiwan’s main island is connected to Japan, the United States, China and other nations by at least 10 cables, but these cables come ashore at just four locations. These sites likely would be targeted in the event of a contingency, which has fueled fears that the cables could be cut.
“There is the risk that people could panic if information from the outside world cannot reach the island,” warned Yisuo Tzeng, an assistant research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a think tank in Taiwan.
If the cables were severed, the options for enabling communication include a microwave system and using satellites. After Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in 2022, U.S. company Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) provided Kyiv with high-speed communication services through its Starlink satellite internet system.
In a bid to ensure Taiwan can retain internet connectivity even during a contingency, the Tsai administration last year started planning the establishment of its own satellite communication network.
“We’ll put a range of backup systems in place so communications can stay available, whatever happens,” a senior official of Taiwan’s communications authority said.
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